Preservation or Predation?

NZ_Dunedin_308The act of listing heritage buildings is a form of collecting. On a larger scale, it is the amassing of fortunes – an embarrassment of riches. Yet, preservation could be a form of predation. Predation is defined as; the act or practice of plundering or marauding or the capturing of prey as a means of maintaining life. Are we killing the goose that lays the golden egg in the process of conserving the things we find significant? What exactly is being lost and what is being gained?

Allow me to start answering this question by saying that in the main, private owners of buildings do not like their buildings to become heritage-listed. The dreaded 'H' word goes off like a red rag to a bull at any weekend dinner party or BBQ. Private owners see a listing as an infringement upon their private right to own land. For them, heritage listing amounts to a loss of value because of the obvious limitations placed upon future development of their land. In some sense this is correct but in another, it is completely false. 



NZ_Dunedin_246There are virtually no limitations upon how a heritage building can be modified as long as the significance of the place is conserved. This is where it gets technical and a little esoteric. Conservation is both a rare science and a fine art. It is a rare science inasmuch as it constitutes original fabric and construction that of itself tells the whole story about the history and knowledge of a place and the people who built it. In terms of being a fine art, conservation is very much predicated upon the basis of a set of assumed norms and values. All fine arts are practiced within a generally closed and conservative set of norms i.e. ways of doing things. In the case of cultural built heritage, we have the Burra Charter in Australia.

The Burra Charter lays out a set of principles and approaches by means of which the conservator will be seen to be doing things either by the book or outside convention. The problem with cultural built heritage (CBH) is that one only gets one go at it. If the wrong approach is taken and the fabric disintegrates or an incorrect decision is made about conservation and we lose an important aspect of the building's history, we can never get it back. This raises the stakes to very high levels. It behoves the conservator to know exactly what they are doing; to understand the nature and the history of the fabric with which they are dealing and to conserve the building in such a fashion as to coax the most interesting components of the building's history and evolution over time into an expression and communication that will allow visitors and users of the building to readily understand the place.

This is how one modifies a listed heritage building while still conserving its significance – by analysing and understanding the condition and provenance of the fabric; by carefully researching the history of the place making sure that the layers of changes are carefully read and understood; by limiting interventions that will only bear positively upon the place and avoiding changes that are intrusive, overwhelming or harmful to the remnant fabric of significance. If this approach is adopted, many changes can be made while still conserving significance. However, because of the rare science and high art nature of the work, such changes ought to be guided by a heritage consultant with appropriate training, experience, understanding and knowledge.

Paul Rappoport - Heritage 21 - 31 August 2014

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